For the past three seasons, David Bruton has toiled in relative obscurity for the Denver Broncos. Despite being arguably their best special teamer, the fact that he doesn’t start at safety has led to his game sometimes being dissed and other times being ignored outright.
Early in training camp some people were already counting him off the final roster. During the Seattle game on Saturday night, Bruton showed what a mistake that view has been.
When Denver selected David 114th overall in 2009, they did so partly on the basis of his 4.46 speed, and also for his leadership; Bruton had been a captain during his senior season. He was commonly described as ‘raw’ back then, and the draftniks’ book on him was that he could be an excellent special teams player immediately and might develop the chops to start at safety over time. He’s become a force on special teams since then, working as the personal escort of the returner on some plays and as a gunner on others.
When he was starting at safety due to injuries late last season, he was frequently blamed by fans for plays that went for long yardage. I’ve liked Bruton ever since he was drafted, so I decided to watch his film from the late season games - Weeks 16 and 17, where he took substantial snaps - to understand his mistakes. What I found was that more often than not, Bruton was making tackles far downfield because he’d maintained gap discipline and carried out his assignment when others had not. Bruton was using his speed to run down the ballcarrier from behind; he was also highly effective in special teams play.
Bruton gave a quick first demonstration of those ST skills on the fourth play of Denver’s preseason 30-10 loss to Seattle. Denver had gone three and out and was punting from their own 25.
Bruton is in a ‘headhunter’ or ‘gunner’ slot, well behind the line of scrimmage to permit him to build a head of steam coming out of the backfield.
Bruton holds his pre-kick position until it's become clear that Britton Colquitt won’t be unduly pressured, and then he fires out to his right.
Colquitt booms a nice 53-yard kick. Returner Phillip Adams muffs it for a moment, then controls the ball.
But by the time he gets a grip on it, Bruton has outraced all the players on either team and is drawing a bead on Adams.
You might want to notice that the Broncos are holding their lanes well, something essential to limiting the opponent’s returns. Their coverage pattern is pretty much textbook:
When Adams gets the ball under control, it’s already too late to create a move unless he can make the first coverage man miss. If Bruton does, the lanes may not let the return go long, but Adams can still get some yardage out of it and get quite a few if he can get to his right.
It’s a big if.
As usual, Bruton cleanly makes an excellent open field tackle.
Now, take a look at the immediate aftermath. Not only are they in their lanes, but you’ll see that multiple Broncos have converged on the ball - Virgil Green is near the bottom of the screen, protecting his lane, while Wesley Woodyard, Rafael Bush, Duke Ihenacho, and Matt Willis - all fast players - have gotten there in case they had to mop up.
This is the kind of coverage that you want to see on every punt.
Different percentages are given by different coaches, but most folks I’ve heard claim that special teams make up between one- and two-sevenths of the game. It can be a lot more impactful than that, depending on the circumstances - a blocked punt can provide an extra 50+ yards in field position and turn an entire half around, while a whiffed tackle or an unfilled lane can lead to seven quick points and cost you the game.
Bruton would go on to finish the game with two partially-blocked punts, two special-teams tackles, and two solo tackles on defense - which is enviable production. Good players will put in a full career without blocking two punts in a single game.
For the folks that suggested that David Bruton was ‘on the bubble’ this training camp, this is just one reason that he’s not. His special teams work is unparalleled on the roster. In addition, he’s a better safety than most fans are aware. At the very least, he’s a quality backup. If a starter slot opens, I don’t worry when Bruton goes in. He will make mistakes at times, but late last season, his play made me darned happy that he was on the roster.
Bruton brings all-out effort to every practice and every play he’s on the field for. He’s always been a hard-working player who stays out of trouble and puts in the preparation week in and week out. When his chances come, he’s ready to make the best of them. That kind of professionalism is a testament to the nature of the man.
The Broncos will be glad to have him on the roster in 2012.